Tag Archives: Yorkshire

Custom contrived: Gawthorpe Coal Carrying Championship

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Image may contain: one or more people, people standing and outdoorAs I am writing this blog post on Easter Monday bemoaning the deluge of rain pouring off the house making this one of the worse, weatherwise, Easter Monday I can remember. But then a message pops up that there’s heavy snow in Wakefield….last year I was making my way to the Gawthorpe Coal Carrying Championship; this year the heavy snow was putting it at risk. However, they are made of tough stuff up north and as they claim nothing has cancelled it in its 55 year history…and indeed it wasn’t!

But where is Gawthorpe? The Sat Nav did not appear to know. But the mass media did find it on this day which draws this small hamlet out of obscurity and into international attention

This was proud coal mining land and carrying coal would have been a common enough occurrence for someone to think it could be turned into a competition. The competition website tells the following story of its creation:

“At the century-old Beehive Inn situated in Gawthorpe the following incident took place one day in 1963. Reggie Sedgewick and one Amos Clapham, a local coal merchant and current president of the Maypole Committee were enjoying some well-earned liquid refreshment whilst stood at the bar lost in their own thoughts. When in bursts one Lewis Hartley in a somewhat exuberant mood. On seeing the other two he said to Reggie, ” Ba gum lad tha’ looks buggered!” slapping Reggie heartily on the back. Whether because of the force of the blow or because of the words that accompanied it, Reggie was just a little put out.‘’ Ah’m as fit as thee’’ he told Lewis, ‘’an’ if tha’ dun’t believe me gerra a bagga coil on thi back an ‘ah’ll get one on mine an ‘ah’ll race thee to t’ top o’ t’ wood !’’ ( Coil, let me explain is Yorkshire speak for coal ). While Lewis digested the implications of this challenge a Mr. Fred Hirst, Secretary of the Gawthorpe Maypole Committee ( and not a man to let a good idea go to waste) raised a cautioning hand. ” ‘Owd on a minute,’’ said Fred and there was something in his voice that made them all listen. ‘Aven’t we been looking fer some’at to do on Easter Monday? If we’re gonna ‘ave a race let’s ‘ave it then. Let’s ‘ave a coil race from Barracks t’ Maypole.’’( The Barracks being the more common name given by the locals to The Royal Oak Public House )”

So it could be claimed to be the grandfather of the increasingly common ‘customs made up in a pub’ and indeed the pub is pivotal to the custom starting as it does at the Royal Oak strictly speaking in Ossett and ends uphill at the village green where the Maypole resides a not so easy 1012 metres. It is curious that Easter Monday was chosen as it was the traditional time for heaving…not sure if heaving a person or a coal bag would be harder work or not!

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At the coal face

It is indeed hard work. At the start the contestants full of enthusiasm and energy. The contestants laugh and occasionally rib each other as they psych themselves up. This might seem a rather bizarre and comical event but it has become a serious measure of ability and stamina. Firmly, becoming on the list of endurance things to do. Some people even had coaches running along with them shouting words of encouragement! Serious stuff. It certainly was as the gentle slope near the start became steep and steeper. At first the event is attended by a few curious onlookers but as the centre of the village is approach the crowds become greater, each side of the road kept at bay by metal railings, waiting here to see the contestants try to attempt the most crueling part. I waited here and watched as the contestants now covered in black soot, in some cases only the whites of their eyes escaping, huffed and puffed up the hill.

Carry coals to Newcastle

When the custom started this was a proud mining community. Its still now proud and so it should be having two notable traditions for such a small and rather indistinct. However, this is far from a coal community, coal comes from elsewhere, the mine closed and miners long gone into retirement or other jobs. The custom might seem a bit outdated; a bit superfluous! But no it is now a great source of income for local pubs as now the custom attracts people from all across the country and across the world in fact. As Julia Smith in her Fairs, Feasts and Frolics customs and traditions of Yorkshire, 25 years in it had already taken on the air of professionalism:

“The event has changed considerably in its twenty-five years. As news spread, more people became interested and wanted to take part. The competitors are now drawn from a wide area and it has become sport orientated. The local pit has closed and the miners have been replaced by serious athletes who wear regulation running gear and train thoroughly sometimes all year round.”

Now adult racers either carry 50kg men, or 20kg, women (no one’s crying out for equal masses here I notice), and smaller masses for children and veterans. Again Smith was informed that:

“it was not necessary to be big and hefty to take part as not was often fell runners wo did well, wiry types with good strong legs.”

Of course the professionals have not taken over the event, it is clear that some have entered to prove they could do it – they are not going to win, never have a chance of winning….there is some achievement carrying fifty kilos of coal and all the back breaking, dust covering, a hot sweatiness is worth it to say you entered and did it. For some its for charity, some as a personal goal and others on a spur of a moment…how many regret half way through as there’s no dropping a few coals on the way: the bags are sown up! As I watched the runners it was indeed clear they were achieving sometime and the atmosphere from the crowd as they cheered they on was electric. Over two thousand people cheering is nearly enough to get over the fact they are carrying coal on your back!

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Hot coals on snow

As the Huddersfield Daily Enquirer’s Nick Laviguer in a piece called Snow fails to stop famous Gawthorpe Coal Race reported:

There was doubt the spectacle would take place this morning after several inches of snow fell on the course in Ossett, causing the cancellation of the children’s event. But at 11am with the thaw beginning to set in, organisers decided to go ahead and allow the more than 100 competitors to complete the challenge –. Women’s champion, was local teacher Danielle Sidebottom, who has entered numerous times but never won before. In the end, victory was taken by reigning men’s champion Andrew Corrigan of Driffield, who actually improved his time from 2017 by two seconds.”

Who would of thought that an idle discussion in the pub would last over 50 years and become a national icon, that snow will not even stop and as it appears above improve it…well at least they had the hot coals ready to melt it.

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Custom demised: Visiting St. Helen’s Wells on St. Helen’s Feast Day

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After St. Mary or Our Lady, the greatest number of Holy wells across Britain are dedicated to St. Helen. St. Helen, the mother of the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity is a complex folklore figure and authorities have placed her birth at Colchester Essex where there is a well and chapel dedicated to her. It is reported that at Rushton Spencer in Staffordshire, processions were associated with the date 18th August, St. Helen’s Feast Day. Baines notes in his 1836 History of the County of Lancashire:

“Dr. Kuerden, in the middle of the seventeenth century, describing one in the parish of Brindle, says: ‘To it the vulgar neighbouring people of the Red Letter do much resort with pretended devotion, on each year upon St. Ellin’s Day, where and when, out of a foolish ceremony, they offer, or throw into the well, pins, which, there being left, may be seen a long time after by any visitor of that fountain.’”

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The Med. Mvi Kalend notes a similar custom was he states:

“observed some years ago by the visitors of St. Helen’s well in Sefton, but more in accordance with an indent ractice than from any devotion to the saint”

At Walton, near Weatherby, Yorkshire, villagers would also visit their St. Helen’s well whose water was said to be effective as a cure for many ailments on this day. A story is told that once the infamous highwayman Swift Nick Nevison was on St. Helen’s Day, found having fallen asleep after drinking from the well, but still alluded capture after an ill attempted capture attempt by some local youths!

Hatfield’s St Helen’s well – rags tied after a service at the well although now not on St Helen’s day!

In Great Hatfield, Yorkshire, there St. Helen’s Well was restored on the 18th August in 1995 and since then on or near the feast day, a service is held at the well. Perhaps not the same as the times of old, and although no one betakes of the water it clearly has become an important part of the spiritual landscape of the community.

Custom demised: May Goslings

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May Gosling’s dead and gone You’re the fool for thinking on

We all know of April Fool’s day but in many places, especially in the North, it was the first of May which was associated with pranks. The receivers of which were called May Goslings.

According to a contributor to the Gentleman’s magazine of 1791:

“A May gosling on the 1st of May is made with as much eagerness in the North of England, as an April noddy (noodle) or fool, on the first of April.”

Despite the unlikeliness of needing two fool’s days back to back it was apparently still current in the 1950s in Cumbria and north Yorkshire according to Opie in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959)

Indeed Nicholas Rhea’s diary, a blog site records:

“One very popular May Day game when I was a child in Eskdale was May Gosling. It was rather like April Fool pranks played on April 1 because children played jokes upon each other. Anyone who fell victim was known as a May Gosling. Just like April Fool jokes, the pranks had to be perpetrated before noon.”

He notes he has not heard any reference to it recently suggesting its demise.  Like April Fool’s Day, as noted above one must do all the pranks by none otherwise you would be taunted with:

May Gosling’s dead and gone, You’re the fool for thinking on.”

Even TV celebrity and gardener Alan Titchmarsh notes in his 2012 Complete Countrymen illuminates and suggests it did indeed survive longest in Yorkshire:

“As a Yorkshire lad, born on 2 May, my Yorkshire grandmother would ask me ‘Have you been christened a May Gosling?” I wondered what she meant then I discovered there had been a Northern custom, akin to April Fooling, which took place on 1 May. Tricks were played and successful perpetrators would cry ‘May Gosling!’ presumably implying the victim was a silly as a young goose. The response would be: ‘May Gosling past and gone. You’re the fool for making me one!”

John Brand in his 1810 Observations on Popular antiquities noted a ritual associated with it:

“The following shews a custom of making fools on the first of May, like that on the first of April “U.P.K spells May Goslings” is an expression used by boys at play, as an insult to the losing party. U.P.K is up pick that is up with your pin or peg, the mark of the goal. An additional punishment was thus: the winner made a hole in the ground with his heel, into which a peg about three inches long was driven, its top being below the surface; the loser with his hands tied behind him, was to pull it up with his teeth, the boys buffeting with their hats and calling out “Up pick you May Gosling” or “U.P.K Goslings in May.”

Robert Chambers in 1843’s Everyday Book noted also that:

“There was also a practice of making fools on May-day, similar to what obtains on the first of the preceding month. The deluded were called May-goslings.”

Perhaps it is due for a revival for in response to the above’s Nicholas Rhea’s article a commenter notes:

May gosling mischief

Having been born and bred in Yorkshire, but lived all my married life in the Vale of Evesham, I could hardly believe my eyes on reading Nicholas Rhea’s tale in the May edition – someone actually knew of May Gosling! Fifty or so years ago when I tried to describe May Gosling Day to my husband, I got some very strange looks. I gave up in the end! Had you been caught out on April Fool’s Day, it was such a joy to get your own back on May Gosling Day. Thank you, Nicholas Rhea. Mrs E B Palfrey, Pershore”

What with Yorkshire’s continuation of Mischief Night perhaps another day of pranks might not be needed!

Customs occasional: Denby Dale Pies

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“It was absolutely glorious. It really was lovely. Very, very savoury – the spices that they’d added to it were such that they brought out the full flavour of the meat. It was more like best stewing steak, so well cooked that it was starting to fall and to disintegrate…It wasn’t chewy, but it was easy on the teeth with lots of rich gravy on it.”

BBC Look North talking to David Bostwick of his pie memories of 1988!

Whilst many waited to see the clocks chine 12 or the impact of the Millennium Bug (remember that) on their VHS recorders (remember them!?) I was thinking I wonder if Denby Dale would do a pie this year? A pie, not instantly an exciting prospect, but this was to be one of the famous giant pie, the biggest pies in the world. I searched in vain on-line, remember this was the day of slow dial up and even slower and primitive pages…but after some searching and contacting the local tourist information they confirmed a pie was planned for the first weekend in September. I made a note in the diary.

 Having a finger in every pie.

This rather unassuming Yorkshire village has progressively baked larger pies since 1788, ten now in all, each attracting more and more hungry mouths. Why this village should start the tradition is unclear – although giant baked produce are not exactly common, they are not that rare – but only this village has kept it. The first pie was baked to celebrate George III’s recovery – albeit brief – from his bouts of madness – I suppose making a crazy pie helped.

However, clearly the villages got the taste for giant pies for soon in 1815, twenty chickens and two sheep were used to make a second pie this time to celebrate the victory of Waterloo. The third to celebrate repeal of the Corn Laws in August 29, 1846, at least made sense it lowered the price of wheat products!  This 1846 pie nearly ended in disaster when 15,000 could have perished when the stage collapsed and a mass escape ensued leaving the official cutter trapped inside it!

Half-baked idea?

However, the most famed incident in pie history is recorded for the fourth pie baked to celebrate Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in August 1887. Not learning from the earlier event perhaps the lack of any organization once the pie appeared at Norman park, having been cooked at the White Hart by Halifax bakers led by a London chef, crowds swamped it. Yet as they dug into it, a rather unpleasant smell arose!

“emitted such an intolerable stench that a number of persons were injured in the stampede to escape.”

It transpired that apparently that in the cooking process the meat had gone cold. This combined with dirt on the potatoes and the fact that the pie had sat all day in the sun, had made the dish go seriously off….so much that it was buried in quick – line and never eaten. A local newspaper the Huddersfield Examiner stated that:

“I am astonished how the promoters dare offer the pie for human food.”

They were not to be beaten and on the 3rd of September that year another pie as made and a select 2000 people invited. It was called the Resurrection Pie.

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Pies the limit?

No such cooking problems would affect the 2000 pie which had the state of the art heating mechanisms which ensured that each piece of the pie was kept piping hot. Infact although it had a crust a top, I wondered how much the mechanical dish with its separate compartments, twenty four in all, heated by three kilowatt heating, could be justified with the concept of a giant pie – was this not smaller pies albeit sharing a giant crust?

1896 saw the 50th anniversary since the Corn Law repeal a good reason to use some of that corn for a crust so a sixth pie was constructed using the previous pie dish. However, for the seventh pie, a local brick and tile works made the dish – 16ft long, 5ft deep and 15 inches deep and it was baked in August 1928 to raise money for the local hospital and as such as called the Infirmary Pie which raised £1000 for them and was given to 40,000 recipients. The pie was almost lost, as the dish got stuck in its specially made oven and needed considerable elbow grease from 20 mean and crowbars to extract it. Not only that there were not enough rollers to move the five-ton pie!

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Pie in the sky

The town did not see another pie due to the Second World War and indeed the original dish was melted down to help the war effort. It was not until 1964 when four Royal births in the same year Prince Edward, Lady Helen Windsor, Lady Sarah Armstrong Jones and James Ogilvy was thought worthy of celebration. In an interesting attempt of publicity, the new pie dish was floated down the canal to Denby – it didn’t make far before it sunk! Sadly, this pie would be tinged with sadness as returning for a television show promoting the pie, four of the main organisers were killed in a car crash. Despite the tragedy, the pie went on and was served to 30,000 people. The money made from it and its associated celebrations paid for Denby Dale Pie Hall which was opened in 1972.

1988 could not go by without a pie as it was 2000 years since the original and so on the 3rd September the Bicentenary Pie was baked. For the first time the pie was served over two days with a fantastically impressive 90,000 being served at £1 apiece. The pie entered the Guinness Book of records as the biggest meat and potato pie in the world and the dish sits holding flowers in the village.

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Nice as pie.

So in 2000, the new millennium combined with the 100th birthday of the Queen’s Mother meant that a pie must be made. This time it contained two and a half tons of beef and potatoes, three and half tons of pastry and 36 gallons of bitter. The dish was 40ft by 8ft and 44 inches deep – so big that it was the trailer of a lorry – 70 feet in all.

And what a site this giant pie was. I stood at the end of the long lane and soon it swung into sight. In a parade which one would only see when a giant pie was in town. With it unsurprisingly were the Sheffield Giants, whose towering statue came close to normalising the gigantic crusted creature.

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With much trumpeting and celebration, the pie arrived at the field. Here entry by paid ticket entitled the bearer to a piece of pie, to prevent a scram they were timed and zoned if I remember. Before all that was the ceremonial cutting of the pie. I sneaked in amongst the press back to see the chefs checking on the pie. Huge wafts of heat bellowed out of it and the smell this time fresh and enticing rose majestically out of it. Of course to cut such a Yorkshire icon needed a Yorkshire icon and as such famed cricket umpire Dickie Bird took the honour. He wielded a giant sword – what else to slay a baked beast as this. Raising it with a devilish grin on his face the pastry skin was pieces and steam arose from it. The pastry pierced it was now time to dish up.

 

Sadly being a vegetarian – they didn’t cater for that – I didn’t partake in this meaty masterpiece giving my offering to a hungry looking boy nearby. I asked him his thoughts…’marvellous’ he said.

I searched on-line (more successfully this time) to find if any further pies were planned such as for the Queen’s recent Jubilees or 90th birthday, but it appears some plans were made, no pies were baked up. One hopes that as the souvenir brochure for the 2000 pie, the Chairman noted:

“there are people saying this is the last Denby Dale Pie. The thoughts were expressed also at the time of the 1964 and 1988 events. I do however believe that in a generation or so, hence, some notable event will encourage a group of ‘pie crazy’ villagers to assemble a ‘mammoth’ pie, and thus maintain a tradition which has made the village of Denby Dale famous throughout the world.”

Let us hope that the Queen’s Hundred or a coronation – whichever happens first – will be the impetus. But until then I am glad to have witnessed such a monumental meaty manifestation!

“When word was given a general rush,

Took place to hack and hew it;

The clambered up outside the crust to get their knives into it,

When all at once the crust gave way,

It’s true, I’ll take my davy

And ninety-five poor souls they say

Were drowned in the gravy.”

Custom survived: Samuel Jobson bread bequest and sermon

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Charity bequests were once common place in England. Each Parish church would have its own charity and many proudly announce these on Benefactor Boards on the walls. However, many of these died out. Some were lost due to the hyper inflations of the First World War, others survived either in an amalgamated form, usually with the gift bequests commuted to money. Samuel Jobson’s bread charity is thus a rare survival. It is similarly unusual because it is affixed to a special sermon, like the Hercules Clay sermon of Newark, which is delivered on the first Tuesday after Easter. Why it was after the first Tuesday is perhaps first unclear.

Bread and butter

Samuel Jobson was a local man, both being baptised in 1623 in All Saints Church, South Cave and buried in that church in 1687. His church survives him, as it has a fire and various rebuilds. Rebuilds appear to be the order of the day in this village. The castle, a grandiose mock castle sitting upon a real one and even the nearby holy well has been rebuilt into a wishing well! South Cave, an ancient Saxon settlement, now resembles a typical Georgian village, set mainly along its main Market Street but subsequently as the population has grown spread along side streets. Jobson being steward to the castle was no doubt a familiar man in the mid-1600s.

I arrived at the church just on time as the service was about to begin and was warmly welcomed by its small congregation huddled to hear this most unique of survivals, an endowed service. Indeed, a number of churches still give out their bread charities but few if any do it as fully instructed by their benefactors. The closest being the Hercules Clay service but that has now absorbed into the normal pattern of Sunday services.

As the curate Lynda Kelly noted in her service, Jobson stipulated that the service must include, the Collect, The Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon, all regular features of the fairly new Church of England and still pivotal today. Why was he so prescriptive? Perhaps he was wary to ensure that the clergy did their job properly, perhaps he had been disappointed by the services he had attended? The clergy were dependent on such endowed sermons and he may have thought as he was providing the money he wanted the full works!

A lot of dough?

Jobson is very prominent in the church. A brass plaque near the old font records his interment and in the church tower is a splendid benefactor board as noted with the usual figures of a women with two children and the words charity below.

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Rather than only leave a sum of money in his Will, he also left a cottage and 10 acres of land at Brantingham to the churchwardens unusually. The gift is recorded on a board in the Church as follows:

” The Gift of Mr. Samuel Jobson to the Churchwardens of South Cave and their successors for ever, commencing at Easter, 1697. Mr. Jobson, by his last will, gave to his beloved wife: “All that his Cottage in Brantinghan adjoining on the Church Garth during her natural life, and after her decease he gave the same premises to the Churchwardens of South Cave and their successors for ever upon condition that they and their successors for ever pay yearly, after his said wife’s decease, the sum of twenty shillings for an anniversary sermon to be preached every Easter Tuesday, and likewise, upon condition that on the same day yearly, immediately after the sermon, they distribute to the charity of twenty-five shillings in white Bread to the Poor. Daniel Garnons, Vicar, 1809, Samuel Ayre and Thomas Clegg, Churchwardens.”

A pound for flour?

So each year one pound would be paid each year for an anniversary sermon to be preached on the Tuesday after Easter and after this sermon white bread would be distributed to the poor. So every year the vicar would sermonise on the man and state how generous man.

Interestingly the Will also records how generous he indeed was. It is noted that 20s per annum would be given to the master of the workhouse towards providing a dinner for the poor people therein at Christmas and Cave fair and the remainder for providing white bread for widows and other necessitous poor on the last Sunday in every month by the churchwardens. Of course the workhouse is no more, but apparently gifts are still made at Christmas. Indeed the need for charity in the area was thought so necessary that in 1883 the Charity Commissioners who had took over its running decided to extend the charity to Flaxfleet and Broomfleet and give the running to 14 trustees who would meet quarterly.

In George Hall’s 1892 A History of South Cave it is noted that the cottage and land was sold to:

“Mr. Christopher Sykes, M.P., and the purchase money was invested in consols. In the scheme it is stated that the endowment consists of the sum of £29 17 12s. 8d., £1 a year to the Vicar of South Cave; the remainder of the income to be divided into three equal parts, two of such third parts to be applied for the benefit of deserving and necessitous persons resident in the original parish of South Cave, in any of the various ways therein described, as should be considered most advantageous to the recipients; and the remaining third part of the income to be applied towards the repair of the Parish church.”

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So the service, which begun with a hymn, then continued to the Collect, Lord’s Prayer and then the Sermon. Jobson’s aim with his endowment was to continue the preservation of name and his charitable acts associated with it, I think he would have been happy with the sermon. It did discuss his benefaction explaining why it was established on Easter Tuesday. This he had done because he would be aware that people would have been off work and would be available to listen. Perhaps not being prominent enough to have it associated with the main days of Easter this was the best thing. The Reverend Mike Proctor, the church’s vicar suggested that perhaps he secretly disliked vicars as having a service on this day after the busiest four days in the church was a good way of killing one off! The sermon continued to reflect upon being a Christian and parts of the Easter story referencing the fact that the women found Jesus first. This lead to a discussion of the increasing role of women in the church, a thought not lost upon its mainly female congregation and its female curate. Indeed, Jobson himself was considerate of his wife more than other benefactors, who only left portions of their money at death. An unusual stipulation which clearly was devised to ensure she lived in good comfort and explains the later date of the bequest starting which does not start until 1697, the year his wife died!

Our daily bread

After the sermon the basket of small white loaves, which had been centre of the raised dais, was revealed. The curate and churchwarden stood either side of it as the congregation lined up to collect their bread. With flattened hands as in offering, the bread was placed in the curate’s and ceremonially passed over. The churchwarden offered a plastic bag for practical purposes. Soon the bread was all gone and the spares packaged up for those of the congregation unable to attend that day. The final bread was kindly given to me, which provided a nice lunch! Today with wholegrains, spelt, organic and sourdough, we might turn our noses up at white bread. Yet of course in Jobson’s day, white bread was indeed a luxury compared to the dirt and rat dropping infested usual bread.

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Then the congregation returned to their pews and we finished off with a rousing Thine is the glory and the service was concluded – a short half an hour or so. A simple service, but one still of great importance, 300 odd years on remembering generosity and charity in a day it very easy to forget such things.

The Jobson Charity a little known charity – it is absent from all surveys – except Tony Foxworthy’s Customs of Yorkshire – but one despite its simplicity should be better known.

 

 

Custom revived: Ripon’s Candlemas Festival of Lights

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“having visited Harrowgate for his health a few years before, he resided for some time at that pleasant market town Ripon, where, on the Sunday before Candlemas day, he observed that the collegiate church, a fine ancient building, was one continued blaze of light all the afternoon from an immense number of candles.”

So wrote a 1790 account in the Gentlemen’s magasine. Yet despite this note reference to this rare survival is no existent. Candlemas is a curious feast which went through a revival in the mid-20th century in a number of churches. The feast celebrates the Presentation of the Infant Christ to the Temple, and traditionally marked the end of the Christmas season (and when the Christmas decoration could be removed). As a custom it is a very curious hybrid of Hebrew – in the remembrance of the tradition of presenting children to the temple and pagan sitting as it does upon the old pre-Christian Imbolc, the coming of spring. The name Candlemas is of course itself rather odd. Most other masses relate to saints or biblical events – this does not.

En-lightening origin

In those dark days of winter, the lighting of candles marked the beginning of the days getting lighter and the rise of spring and the strength of the sun. All pure paganism. At some point the Christians adopted this ancient event and looking at the timing associated it with presentation, a facet still remembered in Blidworth with its unique cradle rocking. The association with candles was convenient as Christ was seen as ‘the way and the light’ and as candles were such a valuable commodity against the evils of darkness the needed to be blessed and be thankful – hence a mass for candles. As the tide turned against such curious Catholic practices at the Reformation, many died out. It survived Henry VIIIth’s purge, but was reformed the blessing of candles was thrown out and so was the Mary’s role focusing on Jesus solely. The custom continued until the late 1700s and as Hutton notes had died out by the 1800s. It is not surprising the North clung onto Catholic traditions longer than elsewhere finally dying out and being revived in the 20th century.

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Candle in the wind

A description by Dean John of the church records on the church website sums it up perfectly:

“Many of you will know that here at Ripon Cathedral the Candlemas Sung Eucharist has long been established as one of the most spectacular services of the year. The light from five thousand candles, the glorious music, and several hundred people gathering from across the region all combine, with the grace of God, to make this a great occasion of celebration and spiritual encounter.”

5000 candles surely that must be a record? Where as many churches and cathedrals now mark Candlemas none do it in a way as spectacular and uplifting as Ripon. As one enters the cathedral on the night one’s senses are assailed. Cathedrals in the night are dark, gloomy, foreboding places. The chill runs down the spine…especially on those cold snow laden February nights. As one enters from the crisp air, one enters a glowing magical place of warm both physical and spiritual. There’s the smell of wax and the hushed sounds which only can be heard in some august edifices.

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The full wax

A few years ago when the 2nd arose on the weekend I made my way to the service to see this great festival of lights. Throughout the service all modern forms of lighting are vanquished and only that of the flickering candle. Throughout the whole building there appear to be candles, hither and thither, placed feverishly earlier by the church’s vergers and lit equally efficiently no doubt.

The triumph of their work is a giant cross arranged in the chancel with the date arranged in candles, fortunately roped off though but easily observed. The service is of course a traditional one of Evensong, but during it the congregation is invited to process around the Cathedral holding their candles lead by the Bishop. This was a magical moment as we processed around remembering the importance of this great building to the spiritual needs of its community and how it had sat as safe refuge from Saxon times and beyond. There also is something quite magical about the sound of evensong sung under the dimness of a candle. Indeed, Ripon’s Candlemas service can give us a real insight into what the pre-Reformation church would have been like. A mysterious evocative dark world lit only by the candle.

Custom demised: The Vessel or Wassail Cup

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The demise of this custom shows how easily common traditions can be lost. So popular was the custom that it had a place in the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica:

“What is popularly known as wassailing was the custom of trimming with ribbons and sprigs of rosemary a bowl which was carried round the streets by young girls singing carols at Christmas and the New Year. This ancient custom still survives here and there, especially in Yorkshire, where the bowl is known as `the vessel cup,’ and is made of holly and evergreens, inside which are placed one or two dolls trimmed with ribbons. The cup is borne on a stick by children who go from house to house singing Christmas carols.”

In the 1800s up to around 1920s, local children around the midlands and northern England, County Durham, Lancashire, and particularly Yorkshire, would enact a curious custom like a mix between carol singing and May Dolls. The custom had many names, often localised Wesley Bob, a Wassail Bob, a Vessel Cup, a Pretty Box or a Milly Box. When the custom was done varied. Visitation days varied accounts recorded in Yorkshire emphasis this variation in Thorpe Hesley it began at Christmas Eve and went on for two to three days. Whereas Hoyland Common only on Christmas day morning. West Melton and Hemingfield it was Boxing Day and Rawmarsh it was New Year’s Day. Generally though the tradition would begin at Advent or more often St. Thomas’s Day, although in some areas it was November, suggesting there is nothing new in the early celebration of Christmas!

How the custom was organized differed from place to place. Sometimes it was a private form of begging and at others organized by the church. The basic approach was as follows: two girls would be the ‘vessel maids’ and they carried a box, decorated with evergreens, often fruit and spices, from home to home, covered in a white cloth. At the people’s homes, the girls would sing a carol and solicit the homeowner for some money, usually a penny, to reveal what was under the sheet. This was a scene of the Holy Family.

Clement Miles in his Christmas in Ritual and Tradition notes that:

“At Gilmorton, Leicestershire, a friend of the present writer remembers that the children used to carry round what they called a “Christmas Vase,” an open box without lid in which lay three dolls side by side, with oranges and sprigs of evergreen. Some people regarded these as images of the Virgin the Christ Child and Joseph.”

Wassail song

As Wright, in their A Yorkshire Wassail Box in Folklore (1906) notes the song sung varied. Sometimes it was the familiar ‘God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen’ followed by:

God bless the master of this house,

Likewise the mistress too,

And all your pretty children

Around your table go.

For it is the time of year

When we travel far nad near;

So God bless you and send you

A Happy New Year.

We have a little purse,

It is made of leather skin,

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Our boots are very old,

And our clothes are very thin;

We’re tired out with wandering around,

And if we cannot sing,

If you only spare a copper

To line the purse within.

So God prosper you and I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

At Normanton the following could be heard:

“Here we come a–wessailing (sic), among the leaves so green.

And here we come a—wandering, so fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,

And to you your wassail too,

And God send you a Happy New Year, a New Year!

And God send you a Happy New Year!

“We are not daily beggars, that beg from door to door,

But we are neighbour’s children, that you have seen before.

Love and joy come to you

I have a little purse lined with stretching leather skin,

And I want a little of your money to link it well within.

Love and joy come come to you.”

Then the box contents were revealed!

A description of the box from the Yorkshire village of Wheatcroft described it as follows:

“The dolls in it have been carried round for twenty–five years.  The box measures 111/4 in. x 7 1/2 in. by 3 in. deep.  It has a lid, but this is not always the case, though the contents of a box are always covered. The box contains besides the two dolls (the large of which is dressed in red), paper flowers, a lemon, holly and mistletoe, a purse, and an artificial orange and an artificial apple, both the artificial fruits containing sweets.  If all the fruits are real, it is necessary to put in a bag of sweets.  The purse should have a hole in it… S.A.’s mother says that the dolls represent the Virgin and Child, and that the box should be made of “parch–board” and lined with moss and ivy. 

Curious origins

Bad luck was associated with the vessel cup if the householder denied it or if it did not arrive. Duncan (1925) in his Second book of carols notes a saying:

“As unhappy as the man who has seen no Advent Images.”

Thistleton Dyer in his British Popular Customs,

“The household visited by the party were allowed to take from these decorations a leaf or flower, which was carefully preserved as a sovereign remedy for toothache.”

All these associations perhaps link it to a possible pagan origin. Certainly, Wright (1906) believed it was associated with pre-Christian deity Dionysius. For as a baby he was placed in a cradle and surrounded by flowers, although it is more likely the biblical crib story derives from that. He also notes that the name vessel came from ship and that the effigy was the boy Sceaf (afterwards changed to Jesus) as a representation of the birth of a new year. Support for this comes from author such as Chaucer who does record the belief that New Year “like a child, came over the sea in a ship.” However it is more likely that it comes from wassail as in was hael ‘good health’.

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Vessel cups at Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire © Lēoht Steren

Death of the custom

When the custom died out is unclear but certainly by the 19th century it was coming under some criticism being described as ‘impious,’ being celebrated by ‘the lowest dregs of humanity,’ and ‘the singing so wretched caterwauling.’

Interesting like many customs it appears in the early 20th century to have gone through a transformation. Dunstan in his West Riding Vessel Cup or Wassail Song states the song is:

“as now generally sung by children decked and carrying evergreens and sometimes having blackened faces.”

And no actual cup! Thomas et al (1926) in their Advent Images and Lucy Green, continues on the theme, the Lucy green is a small child dressed in evergreen branches and called it “Lucy Green.” And another called “Turkey Claw Chori” where a turkey claw as a badge of office for those soliciting money. Even the song changed ‘Seven Joys of Mary’ but sung to the tune of ‘God rest you merry.’ However, a search on the internet shows people are keen to revive and presenting some stateside Catholics have revived it…will it ever return here…time will tell.

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Vessel cups at Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire © Lēoht Steren